Community Calling – People want more influence, and policy makers need better local intelligence

August 4, 2022  

At a time when debates are polarised, politics feels stale, and the country is looking for answers to big challenges, it is clearer than ever that we need to think differently about public services and policy development.

No matter what your political persuasion, the time has come to recognise the potential of a group often overlooked in favour of simple market-based or central state-based ideology: our communities.

To understand the scale of the potential we need to understand what they want and what they’re willing to offer. Our latest report, Community Calling, unpacks this in detail.

What are people saying?

Findings from an extensive and representative survey alongside seven in-depth focus groups – four in Swing Seat areas (BC1) and three in Red Wall areas (C2DE) across three ages groups – provide compelling evidence for what people want and what they are offering.

Communities have little trust in national politicians. Communities feel unheard by national politicians, feel that politicians don’t understand them and have a high level of distrust in officials and the system. Importantly, the majority of people lack confidence that national politicians can solve the big issues facing the country today.

Communities show a significant appetite for greater local control and influence. An overwhelming majority of people think that better decisions are made when the local community is involved in the discussion and can help design services.

Communities have the highest trust in local figures or ‘grass-roots’ organisations. People think these organisations have the best interests of the area at their heart and they want to work with them to improve local outcomes.

Communities want more control but they want to work within an existing governance structure. People understand that influencing the design of policy or services is different to its delivery. They want that influence but they also understand the potential pitfalls of duplication, adjudication, and exploitation – this is where they want councils to have a significant role.

“Every single community is different. So there should be a difference.” – Focus group participant

“So communities know the local issues and the local problems, they will have an idea on, you know, what’s best for the local area.” – Focus group participant

Communities understand local variation. Our research shows that people are comfortable with the notion that different places have different issues and may need different solutions. They want to embrace this notion so long as councils are suitably funded to play their important role.

People look favourably on politicians with a commitment to community power. Most people would support a politician who championed this movement, and a large majority of people think that community power should be politically committed to and legislated for.

How could policy makers and service designers harness this potential?

It is clear that people want more influence over decisions and they’re cautious to avoid creating any new overhauled system. At the same time, policy making at best feels stale and at worst might not be delivering the fair, equitable, or positive results people want to see up and down the country.

“Collaboration of a number of people within the local community that can voice their opinions and then upwards nationally, as opposed to the other way round.” – Focus group participant

“The Government have failed and the people need to have their opinions matter and to make positive change.” – Focus group participant

At the very least, policy making needs to consider local views in a more holistic and co-designed way. Indeed, as there is local variation, the nature, scope, and location of that policy creation should reflect the needs of the local area. Levelling Up and decentralisation agendas will become increasingly important.

We should also harness the power of creating sincere feedback loops for local intelligence. People living in their communities have a better understanding of the needs in that area – tapping into this knowledge and insight will help create better policy and service design and will drive more effective outcomes. This is about both understanding impact of previous work but also engaging in discussion about what the future could look like.

We also need to recognise the elephant in the room – funding. The role councils play in this process should be even larger than it is today, but they need to be suitably funded to undertake this work. Our focus groups took any new policy idea much more seriously if it had funding attached as it showed a level of commitment and avoided political spin.

Policy and service design needs reinvigorating. Communities want greater influence and power to design services in return for sharing their on-the-ground intelligence but recognise the vital role existing governance structures provide. Local councils need suitable funding to achieve this in return for better outcomes. The time has come to place communities front and centre.


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